UC Davis distinguished history professor Alan Taylor has won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book about slaves assisting the British during the War of 1812.
“The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia: 1771-1832” (W.W. Norton) was called “a meticulous and insightful account of why runaway slaves in the colonial era were drawn to the British side as potential liberators” by the Pulitzer committee. “Drawn from new sources, Alan Taylor’s riveting narrative re-creates the events that inspired black Virginians, haunted slaveholders, and set the nation on a new and dangerous course.”
This is the second Pulitzer for Taylor, who has taught at UC Davis since 1994. Taylor said the book developed when he came upon documents telling of escaped slaves who were important in helping the British capture Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. The liberated slaves served as guides, pilots and sailors using their intimate knowledge of the countryside and waterways to aid the British. In return they were given their freedom, and many were relocated to Bermuda, Trinidad and Nova Scotia.
"This is a story I had known nothing about and I was supposed to be a specialist," Taylor said. “Most people never heard about it. A lot knew about the earlier slave escapes during the American Revolution, but these events were much better documented.”
George R. Mangun, dean of social sciences at UC Davis, said he was not surprised Taylor won a Pulitzer once again. He recalled reading Taylor’s first Pulitzer-winning book and being astounded by the rigorous scholarship.
Mangun described Taylor as “a person who discovers new knowledge. That’s what a good historian does. He’s an immense scholar and teacher — he’s the real deal. He is an example of what the University of California is all about.”
James Oakes, in a review of the book for the Washington Post said “Taylor writes locally but thinks globally. He does not doubt, for example, that the British were sincerely committed to freeing Virginia slaves, but he also knows that British imperialists were learning from their experience how to use emancipation as a moral justification for their own projects of colonial expansion. Indeed, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the ease with which Taylor moves from the lives of individual slaves, to the history of a large planter family, to the fault lines of Virginia politics, to the national debate over slavery in the western territories, out into the Atlantic world to the history of the British Empire.”
“It's still stunning news," Taylor said. “I didn’t expect my first Pulitzer and I certainly did not expect this.”
A native of Portland, Maine, Taylor also won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for his 1996 book "William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic," which chronicles the settling of Cooperstown, N.Y., and two of the community's most famous residents: Founder William Cooper, and his son, "The Last of the Mohicans" novelist James Fenimore Cooper. His other books include “Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier,” “The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution,” “American Colonies: The Settling of North America” and “The Civil War of 1812.”
In August, Taylor will take the position of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Chair in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia.